The emergence of yet another major COVID cluster in Divulapitiya is food for thought. While the entire world seemed to have lost control over the spread of Covid-19, Sri Lanka seemed to have brought it under control until this latest outbreak. Even this latest cluster though the largest by our standards, is nothing compared to what most other countries including highly developed countries with much smaller populations have been experiencing. There is little doubt that Sri Lanka will bring this cluster under control as it did the previous ones. There is no such thing as eradicating this disease which has no cure. All that one can do is to have a successful firefighting mechanism which is capable of containing any outbreaks. The Kandakadu cluster came as an unpleasant surprise just like the present one, but it was successfully contained.
At no point were we ever rid of Covid-19 completely. When the number of local patients declines, the repatriation of expatriate workers from overseas commences and every planeload brings new Covid-19 patients into the country. Hence the emergence of new clusters is something that has to be expected. Even countries like China and New Zealand which had established control over Covid-19 very early on, experienced the emergence of new clusters which they had to put a cap on. Before the emergence of the Divulapitiya cluster, people had begun relaxing to an extent that would seem to be inviting disaster. We seemed to be fiddling while the entire world burned all around us.
We were watching the news bulletins announcing new outbreaks throughout the western world and in parts of Asia which exceeded even the first wave experienced in those countries and yet going about our work as if nothing was wrong. The Divulapitiya cluster was perhaps a much needed reality check, to put the whole country on alert once again. One international personality who said, based on studies carried out, that this could be a three to four year pandemic, was Michael Moore the documentary film producer. Unless a vaccine is developed before that, this pandemic seems set to continue for quite some time more.
We are now nearing the first anniversary of the first outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan China and nowhere near developing a vaccine for the disease. One thing that can be said for certain is that the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be very different to previous outbreaks of viral dieseases like the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2003, or even the AH1N1 pandemic of 2010. Of these SARS was just a blip on the radar which affected only a few countries. AH1N1 was far more widespread – perhaps as pervasive as Covid-19 but the number of fatalities it caused was negligible by Covid-19 standards. As a disease, Covid-19 is nowhere near as fearsome as was the Ebola hemorrhagic fever which was also a viral disease with a fatality rate that could be as high as 90%. Yet with the number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide topping over a million, it cannot be ignored as a case of the ‘sniffles’ either. In actual fact most people are still unclear as to extent to which they should be concerned. If this had been a disease like Ebola, what we would be living through would effectively be the end of the world and people would have been in a state of blind panic.
Wake up call
But what we see now happening with regard to Covid-19 is whole countries and populations alternating between concern and indifference. One thing that the entire world seems to have decided on is that there will be no more complete shutdowns as was imposed in March and April this year during the early stages of this pandemic. Such shutdowns were impractical and in the circumstances, only helps to suppress the spread of the disease for a while and it resurfaces the moment the shutdown is lifted. The only alternative appears what countries like Vietnam and Sri Lanka have been doing, isolation of cases, localized shutdowns where necessary, restrictions on gatherings, imposing face mask and handwashing regulations, and contact tracing. If this cannot be done in a particular country, perhaps the only other alternative is to try to go about your day to day work and hope for the best as countries like the USA and Brazil seem to be doing.
The approach being tried by the USA and Brazil was tried out in its classic purity by Sweden which never had shutdowns or mandatory face masks or total restrictions on gatherings. At one point, even the wearing of face masks was discouraged by Sweden on the grounds that it would cause unnecessary panic. Today, Sweden which has less than half the Sri Lankan population has over 95,000 recorded cases and nearly 6,000 deaths. Swedish levels of infection and mortality would have caused the government to fall in Sri Lanka but the Swedes seem to be taking it with stoic indifference. There was much criticism of President Trump for having left the hospital without being completely cured of Covid-19 and taking his mask off to address the media, but perhaps in those countries, there’s no alternative but to put on a brave face and weather the storm as best as one can.
Throughout the West, there have been protests against any move to reimpose shutdowns. A phenomenon aptly termed ‘Covid-19 fatigue’ is setting in throughout the world. Indeed the same can be said about Sri Lanka. Despite the horrific stories that one hears about the rate of infections and fatalities in other countries, people are becoming less and less amenable to Covid-19 routines such as wearing face masks and washing hands. In most establishments in Sri Lanka, the sinks and soap have been replaced by hand sanitizers as most customers show little inclination to go through the hassle of washing one’s hands before entering an office or a shop. As of this moment, the entire world is actually veering in the direction of countries like Sweden, USA and Brazil except perhaps countries like Sri Lanka which have hit upon an alternative way of dealing with the problem.
Finally, we may well end up dealing with Covid-19 the way the world dealt with the Spanish flu over a century ago – by basically ignoring it and allowing those who die to die and hope for the best. As a result of that attitude, the economic impact of the Spanish flu was not as severe as one would think, even though that pandemic killed millions worldwide. The attitudes that we are seeing towards death in countries like Sweden, the USA and Brazil are very different to the attitudes that prevailed in the West just a decade or two ago. In the old days, if a 98-year old person died in a hospital, his relatives would file a medical negligence suit claiming that his dearly beloved great great grandpa would still have been alive if not for someone’s negligence. Things came to such a pass that in some countries insurance companies refused to insure medical professionals against medical negligence claims and governments had to consider laws limiting the maximum payout that can be obtained from a medical negligence suit. After the end of the cold war and the emergence of a unipolar Western-dominated world, the West suffered a serious loss of commonsense.
Damages could be claimed for the most ridiculous causes. This writer is aware of an instance in a western country where a man jumped out of a moving train just as it was coming to a stop at a station as we see so many passengers doing in Sri Lanka on a daily basis. One would think that if anyone is injured after jumping off a moving train without waiting a few seconds for it to come to a halt, one has to bear the consequences of one’s actions. But not in the West. In the instance mentioned, the passenger sued the railway company saying that he jumped out only because it was possible to do so. That was the West just a few years ago. In recent years this snowflake culture in the west developed to untenable levels with just a word being considered a threat and the victim needing counseling or medication to get over the stress of being called a name. But today people are dying like flies in the West and one would expect a flood of litigation bigger than the Asian tsunami of 2004, but we see nothing of the kind. The West is taking the damage from Covid-19 with third world levels of resignation. Perhaps this is nature’s way of correcting attitudes.
Face to face with the reality
Covid-19 has brought home to the Western world the realities of life and how. It’s tempting to hope that this new found realization of practical limitations, of one’s own mortality and vulnerability of what is possible and impossible, will lead to a more realistic approach to the rest of the world. At one point some theorists in the West were advocating R2P (the right to protect), a doctrine formulated to enable the West to intervene even militarily in any country on the pretext of protecting its population or a part of its population from its own government. One Western leader who realized that this involvement in dozens of conflicts around the world with little or no understanding of what they were doing, was sapping the strength of the West was Donald Trump. He has been taking concrete steps to extricate the USA from interminable and unwinnable wars all around the world. The realization of limitations on the political and military front go together with a similar realization on the economic front.
Indeed it could be said that the realization of these realities predated Covid-19 – the election of Donald Trump in 2016 symbolized that trend. Covid-19 only been a kind of coup d’ grace in this whole process. The changes in the world economy now taking place due to Covid-19 actually began before Covid-19 appeared on the scene. Unbridled economic globalization was proving to be untenable. In the US, companies selling goods in the American market would relocate overseas to cut costs and increase profits and import into the USA what once used to be produced within the USA. Its not that these companies were making losses when they were producing within the USA, but they could make greater profits when they relocated to other countries with cheaper labour costs and cheaper inputs. Thus we saw globalization being driven by an international kleptrocracy that had no loyalty to any nation or anybody except the profit motive. The Americans within this kelptocracy had no regard to the fact that relocating production facilities overseas were depriving Americans of their jobs.
No regard was paid to the question as to how Americans were supposed to purchase the goods that were being imported if a good part of the population did not have an income to pay for those goods. After about two decades or more of unbridled globalization, countries like the USA were looking for a reset, which Trump provided in 2016. So even before Covid-19 appeared on the scene, a turning inwards was becoming apparent throughout the world, most conspicuously in the USA and Britain. Suddenly, ideas like Sovereignty, borders, national security, national economy had once again become fashionable. Now Covid-19 has made that trend a necessity. People have learned the hard way how disruptive over dependence on imports can be in certain situations.
Even before Covid-19 hit SL, we had certain priorities dictated not so much by economic reasons as by political ones. There was a need to generate more job opportunities locally. There was a need to cut down on imports and to produce such goods locally whenever possible so as to conserve foreign exchange. There was a need to limit our dependence on certain overseas markets. All these have been made even more necessary by the pandemic. There will be restrictions on the number of Sri Lankans who can be employed abroad as the economies of all countries shrink and the volume of world trade contracts. Quite a number of those already employed are likely to lose their jobs and return to Sri Lanka which makes it imperative that job opportunities are created locally for these people.
Making room for a reset
The decline in foreign exchange earnings will have to be met by limiting imports which also works in favour of the above mentioned objective of creating more employment by producing such goods locally. Over the past four decades or so, both political parties have had policies trending in this direction to a greater or lesser extent. The UNP of J.R.Jayewardene despite its open economy orientation still gave priority to the local production of rice through projects like the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme. They also tried to get local sugar production going by earmarking the Moneragala district for sugar cane cultivation and setting up the Pelwatte Sugar factory. The sugar produced by this new factory was sold on the local market for slightly above the world market price with the then UNP government imposing a tax on imported sugar to make Pelwatte sugar viable on the local market. The UNP of J.R.Jayewardene was a development oriented party and in the 1980s, they were sneeringly called the ‘Sanwardhanas’ because of their emphasis on economic development.
However, after the mid-1990s the UNP completely lost its development orientation and became a mouthpiece for NGOs. It came to such a pass that the UNP government stored paddy from a bumper harvest in the Mattala airport to make fun of the bumper harvest as well as the airport. It’s very unlikely that JRJ would have reacted to a bumper paddy harvest in that manner. During his time, he even participated in the traditional wap magula ceremonies, getting into the paddy field barebodied and in a sarong like the farmers. Now, due to Covid-19, and the economic and political changes that had been taking place in the world before Covid-19, we have once again come to an era where the prime need of the country is to promote local production, to create new avenues of income for the people and generate jobs locally for the youth entering the labour market every year.
For Sri Lanka, the need for an economic reset that has been made necessary by Covid-19 is actually an opportunity to make a change of course that was becoming necessary due to political circumstances. Making such a change of course when things are normal both domestically and internationally is difficult because the disruption caused generates stresses and resentment. Now however with the entire world in turmoil, and the domestic economy also thrown into disarray due to circumstances beyond the control of the government, it’s easier to change course with the minimal political fallout.